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Lexington shooting revives calls for mental health clinicians on 911 dispatches

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Marilyn Schairer
GBH News
February 16, 2022

Behavioral health experts say the police shooting in Lexington over the weekend reinforces the importance of having mental health professionals respond to some 911 calls.

Almost 20 years ago, the Framingham Police Department adopted one of the state’s first models for dealing with mental health 911 crisis calls by inviting professional behavioral clinicians to join police officers when they respond to the scene. The "co-response" model has gotten support of mental health advocates, police chiefs and clinicians — and it’s gaining traction across Massachusetts. The state has allocated millions in grants for more cities to implement such programs.

The co-response model was again brought to light after a fatal shooting last Saturday. Police shot a 35-year-old Lexington man who they say lunged at an officer with a knife. The Middlesex District Attorney’s office is investigating.

The Massachusetts Association for Mental Health president and CEO Danna Mauch said the incident appears to have been a tragedy for all involved.

“I’m not saying that, you know, a 911 call will never end in this kind of a tragedy, but I think so many of these situations could be avoided if we had earlier access to care for people in distress,” Mauch said.

A 2015 study found that people with behavioral health conditions who are approached by police officers are 16 times more likely than other civilians to be killed by police, pointing to the need for de-escalation in interactions with law enforcement.

Mauch said the co-response model enhances a response and “doesn’t put everything on the police in terms of trying to de-escalate someone.”

Sarah Abbott, an associate professor at William James College in Newton and founder and principal of Abbott Solutions for Justice, said these programs existed long before George Floyd’s death in 2020 ignited calls for police reform. She said the co-response model is well received in areas where people have low incomes, lack access to mental health services, distruct police departments, and where residents are disenfranchised.

“Oftentimes, I don’t think people want to call the police for their mentally ill family member,” Abbott said. “You know, it doesn’t seem like the right call to make, but that’s what happens.”

Kallie Montagano, who works at the Framingham-based community mental health center Advocates, explained that the clinicians respond to every call with officers, and once they’re on the scene officers evaluate if they bring relevant skills to that call.

“We are in the cruisers, in the front seat going to calls — any calls,” said Montagano, who leads a Advocates’ training center on co-response programs. “Ideally mental health calls, obviously substance use calls, but also other calls like a sudden death, or a situation where we have a distraught family member and police are dealing with the scene and we, as clinicians, can step out and kind of assist them.”